Lost Time: The Forgetting of the Cold War

September 1, 1995 Topic: Society Tags: BusinessContainmentCold WarGulf War

Lost Time: The Forgetting of the Cold War

Mini Teaser: Forgetting the Cold War means distorting the lens through which we view the present. Consciously or unconsciously, it is an act of denial and repudiation, asserting or imagining that what was, was not, and that what was not, was. It is un-remember

by Author(s): Ian Gambles

Some real calamities--themselves sure to be remembered by the
participants--have been suffered thanks to this forgetting of recent
experience and reading back into the past. The nationalists have
thrown down the gauntlet in the name of national self-determination,
and responded to resistance and rejection by re-inventing ethnic
cleansing, the elementary and brutal method of establishing the
national state by throwing non-nationals out or killing them. But
these are yesterday's ideas, as their generally hostile reception
suggests. Major historical changes during the Cold War, some of which
happened because of that conflict, some despite it, have quashed the
legitimacy and relevance of nationalist and ethnic politics. Among
the most important of these changes are the increased permeability of
borders to information, capital and labor; the successes, partial
though they may be, of the integrationist European Communities (now
European Union); the collapse of Western empires and the appearance
of over a hundred new "Third World" states for whom ethnic and tribal
self-determination constitutes a real threat to a fragile
sovereignty; the collective international repudiation of apartheid
and racism in general; and the declining long-term viability of
repressive methods of control and subordination. Hypnotized by the
rhetoric of release, remembering historical injustices and
grievances, and forgetting the transformations of the intervening
years, the nationalists fight on into the past.

Disowned Causes--Disappearing Effects

Thus the freeze/thaw rhetoric encourages a misguided belief in the
continuity of history from before the Cold War to after the Cold War,
an illusion of resumption and returning that neglects the realities
of change in the intervening years. The result of this amnesia is a
distorted perspective, the consequences of which can be grave.

But there is a second way in which we have begun to treat the era of
the Cold War as lost time: by denying and disowning the reasons why
we are where we are. Some of the major changes in international
society that took place in the Cold War period were brought about as
a direct result of that phenomenon--were indeed effects of Cold War
causes. The sudden end of the conflict and the implosion of the
international structure it supported may lead to an unravelling of
these changes. As we forget the Cold War, we slide gradually into the
assumption that the international society it shaped is a starting
point, a given, and that these recent changes are features of its
basic structure, abstracted from the vanished causes we do not wish
to remember. Of course, effects can outlive their causes, but it is
unwise simply to assume that they will.

Easily the two most important such changes were the move toward
inviolability of borders, and the re-limitation of violence. Before
the Cold War, international boundaries were not inviolable. Changing
them was not a trivial matter, and frequently led to or resulted from
major international wars. But changes happened regularly, whether
through Metternichian deals to manage the balance of power, Wilsonian
conferences to give peoples the citizenship they wanted, or unequal
treaties, appeasement, military conquest, and imperial expansion. The
criminalization of aggression, despite its long pedigree and its
significant advance at the Nuremberg trials and in the Charter of the
United Nations, remained essentially aspirational law, a hope rather
than an established and generally observed norm in international

The Cold War changed this, and established the inviolability of
borders as one of the first principles of international order.
Borders arrived at more or less by accident, like the inner-German
border or the Taiwan strait, came to have the future of the world
staked on them. Borders were locked in place by a pervasive climate
of fear. Above all, the superpowers and their allies feared the bomb.
The imminence of global catastrophe was so terrifying, and the
dangers of escalation in a bipolar, ideological confrontation so
great, that the superpowers stood in constant and imperative need of
readily available, mutually tolerable formulae for cutting off
conflict. Fear led to crisis resolution through "Schelling points,"
points of convergence devoid of any inherent merit but which had the
virtue that they could end a crisis. The Schelling point of crisis
resolution is hardly ever a solution to the underlying problem, but
simply a grudging return to the pre-existing balance. Thus the status
quo, the boundaries that already happened to be lying on the map,
acquired an unprecedented authority. The Korean War, a bloody battle
from an arbitrary starting point to the same arbitrary finishing
point, did a lot to teach this lesson.

A different fear, the security paranoia of the Kremlin, pushed in the
same direction. Constantly anxious to assert the legitimacy of their
illegitimate empire, Moscow first created a metaphorical iron curtain
and later made it concrete in Berlin in order to insist on the
permanence of a contested European map. This appearance of permanence
later gained wider acceptance through the Helsinki Final Act, which
made explicit the bargain of détente: a softening of the harshness of
Europe's division in exchange for recognition of its legitimacy.

The inviolability of borders is now regarded as fundamental to the
new world order, a cornerstone of international society. Saddam
Hussein's aggression attracted near-universal opprobrium--to the
quite remarkable extent of lining Arab troops up with Americans
against fellow Arabs attacking Israel--because it violated Kuwait's
borders and sought to extinguish its sovereignty. The Bosnian Serbs
have become the villain of the piece in the complex Balkan war
because they represent both an internal insurrection against the
borders of the Bosnian state and an external imperialist attack on
them. Wherever borders are in question, from Ireland to Israel, the
determination at least to say that force will never move frontiers is
a required theme of political discourse. And the hapless states
manqués that have not made it into the club--Tibet, East Timor,
Kurdistan--still get short shrift.

But force can change borders. It always has and probably always will
be able to do so. The Cold War was a particular, static system of
coercion which locked boundaries in place. It is too soon to say how
quickly or in what way force will reassert itself, whether we will
see the re-emergence of the border war as a standard feature of
international politics or whether the inviolability of international
boundaries will be re-established on new foundations. Clearly,
however, international efforts to manage the evolution of this
principle will not be helped by forgetting the particularity of its
Cold War causation.

The Cold War also brought back limits to violence. It is an age-old
moral idea that war is subject to its own complex set of principles
and rules aimed at preserving human dignity and limiting destruction.
The wars of the first half of the twentieth century took a terrible
toll on this idea. National, ideological warfare pursued to the
bitter end with ever more destructive and indiscriminate weapons
brought us by 1945 to a point where war was experienced as an
all-consuming and brutal chaos of unlimited violence. Non-combatants
had been deliberately slaughtered in enormous numbers by both sides
in the Second World War, and the Axis powers had committed genocide
and abused prisoners of war. The mobilization of nations and empires
meant that, in the right conditions, violence escalated and
multiplied rapidly from a single flashpoint, penetrating throughout
societies and spreading over most of the globe.

The Cold War was different in a significant way. While both
superpowers committed shameful crimes, they both also collaborated in
a system of restraint that prevented any recurrence of unlimited war
and re-invented limited war, fought in other peoples' lands, as an
instrument of policy. Continental conflagrations were avoided and
international wars discouraged, while internal wars in Africa, Asia,
and Latin America--so-called "proxy wars"--were deliberately fueled
for geopolitical purposes. This re-limitation of violence, it is
vital to understand, was due not to a rise in moral standards but to
a structural change in international relations.

It is difficult to say which were the most important factors bringing
this about. Nuclear weapons undoubtedly played an important part,
both by making victory in superpower war all but impossible and by
giving both sides a sense of themselves as global custodians. So too
did the new techniques of summitry and crisis management that were
developed, in part out of the imperative to signal accurately about
the nuclear balance and one's intentions. But other factors, harder
to assess, may have counted for much too. For all its ideological and
rhetorical frenzy, the Cold War was waged between two states with
little objective reason to interfere in each other's spheres of
influence, and whose leaders and peoples never looked on each other
with the depths of hatred and contempt reserved for traitors,
neighbors, and ethnic rivals.

This measured and disciplined approach to conflict has become such an
accepted part of normal international behavior that it is hard to
swallow the idea that it might be ephemeral. But perhaps the
principles of restraint that the world abandoned in the first half of
the century were revived only because of the Cold War system, and
will not survive without it. Nuclear weapons are still around, but
the iron discipline of the nuclear balance is gone. Great powers
still exist, but their capacity and their willingness to impose
restraint on others is much diminished. Reluctant to acknowledge that
the bad old Cold War system might actually have been a positive moral
agent, people revert to the pre-World War I illusion. Unfortunately,
there is no basis for this belief, and the horrors of Bosnia and
Rwanda are a stark reminder that often the most bitter memories run

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